Parts of North Las Vegas have gone without round-the-clock Fire Department coverage for almost a year. And so far, no deaths have been reported while patients waited on an ambulance or fire engine.
That’s according to North Las Vegas Firefighters Association President Jeff Hurley.
He credits help from the city’s privately contracted ambulance service, aid from neighboring fire departments and the diligence of his fellow firefighters for the less-than-calamitous impact of brownouts — planned rescue unit and station closures — on emergency response times.
That doesn’t mean Hurley, who keeps a daily log of service disruptions on his Twitter feed, has come to terms with staffing cutbacks at city firehouses.
In fact, he gets a little queasier about the move every day.
“It’s all we worry about,” Hurley said. “Ward 1 has half the frontline emergency units it used to have. We used to have two trucks; now we only have one. For a city this size, it’s just awful.”
The brownouts, designed to cut into some $3 million in annual overtime expenses, have seen hourly or daily closures at more than a quarter of North Las Vegas fire stations in the past year.
Those outages could strain long-standing mutual aid agreements with neighboring fire departments and already may have cost some longtime residents a bump in insurance premiums.
Hurley said he has seen more than a dozen firefighters head for greener pastures and greater job security as a result of the move, departures that have coincided with a 23-second increase in average emergency response times.
The department response time is at 5 minutes 27 seconds; the generally accepted target is 6 minutes.
Faced with fires that can double in size every minute, Hurley said he has started to worry about the safety of his own staff.
“North Las Vegas has the highest taxes in the state and some of the worst services,” the 39-year-old fire captain said. “We don’t sign the checks. We didn’t ask them to build City Hall.
“They’re taking $1.7 million out of the general fund for (Craig Ranch Regional Park), and all we would need is $1 million to adequately staff this Fire Department. So it’s just a question of priorities.”
The North Las Vegas City Hall, opened in 2011, cost city officials just under $130 million.
Craig Ranch Regional Park, a 150-acre city-owned park set to open in September, is projected to cost the city around $13 million, including more than $1 million in estimated annual maintenance costs.
For Hurley, the cost of four parked rescue units, one idle fire engine and almost 70 unmanned firefighter spots might still be measured in lives.
CLARK COUNTY CONCERNS
For Clark County Fire Chief Bertral Washington, it already has counted in dollars, with increased aid to North Las Vegas costing the county department an estimated $1 million or more annually.
“County assistance to North Las Vegas is up 54 percent in five months through Dec. 31, 2012,” Washington told Clark County commissioners at a meeting Feb. 19. “We know some of our county units are going deeper into North Las Vegas, and the time it takes for them to get back takes a little longer than it used to.”
Five of eight North Las Vegas fire stations have kept at least one engine, truck or rescue in service round-the-clock since July 2012.
Of the three stations that have seen brownouts, Station 54 was hardest hit, operating at full strength 74 percent of the time over the past year and just 63 percent of the time over the last half of 2012.
County firefighters have responded to more than 800 calls in North Las Vegas since North Las Vegas City Council members signed off on emergency services reductions in July.
Automatic aid responses tumbled by 17 percent over the same time period.
The short-run price of that realignment, including thousands of dollars in increased vehicle maintenance costs, is one that county commissioners said they would be willing to pay in order to preserve long-standing mutual aid agreements with the city.
But it’s the long-run costs, including a dreaded domino effect on county response times, that has County Commissioner Tom Collins worried.
“I don’t think it’s fair for our taxpayers to be subsidizing the city of North Las Vegas,” said Collins, whose district includes North Las Vegas. “We’re running an additional six or seven calls a day. ... How much longer can we continue to do that?”
MAYOR SEEKS UNION CONCESSIONS
North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck is one of five council members who supported fire station staffing cuts adopted in the summer.
Buck, who was ousted at the primary election in April, stands by the move meant to help stem a $33 million tide of red ink faced by city officials this time last year.
Buck doesn’t think North Las Vegas officials will need to cut any deeper into city services funding to bridge this year’s $19 million budget shortfall.
But Buck said she couldn’t envision a timeline for ending the brownouts without winning further union concessions.
“We are functioning very well having redeployed our resources and using our manpower in a more efficient way,” the mayor said. “In an ideal world we’d be able to restaff; but with the way our budget looks right now, a lot depends on if they want to offer concessions.”
City firefighters are more than familiar with the sharp drop-off in property taxes Buck and others blame for North Las Vegas’ ongoing budget gap.
Many have spent years battling criticism surrounding a 2011 report that found 90 percent of the department’s full-time staffers live outside the city, insulated from the municipal property taxes that go to fund their paychecks.
Some of those same firefighters might be immune from a more recent, quiet levy: rising fire insurance premiums paid by North Las Vegas homeowners.
Scott Johnson, president of the Las Vegas Firefighters Association, suggests ongoing brownouts already might have led to increases in North Las Vegas’ Insurance Services Office score.
The five-point, best-to-worst scale rating, is based on rescue response times and fire department infrastructure.
Johnson said any bounce in the city’s nationally recognized ISO rating could lead to a major uptick in insurance premiums.
“As I understand it, they’re shutting down as much as 60 percent of their (rescue units) on any given day,” Johnson said. “If they have less firefighters, then I would think if ISO were notified they could lose points, which would then potentially mean higher premiums. We kind of view that as a hidden tax.”
Reached for comment Friday, Timothy Sendelbach, chief of the North Las Vegas Insurance Services Office, said if anything the city’s latest ISO rating marked an improvement on previous scores, the result of water and communications infrastructure improvements undertaken before the department was last rated in 2005.
Sendelbach couldn’t say whether post-brownout staff deployment and response time measures — another component of the insurance office analysis — had any impact on the city’s current 2.9 score, which lags nearly 2 points behind the perfect score held by the Las Vegas Fire Department since 1990.
Neither could Allstate homeowners insurance agent Morris McPherson, who has witnessed at least a 10 percent bump in premiums since he opened up shop in North Las Vegas nearly a decade ago.
“Most insurance companies don’t go by the severity, but the frequency of the claims,” McPherson said Wednesday. “I can tell you that if it takes longer for the department to get to a burning home, there’s going to be more damage, and that’s taken into account as far as premiums.”
Back in 2004, McPherson said the average household premium hovered right around $500 per year .
Today, he puts it somewhere closer to $550, but he said brownouts shouldn’t take all the blame.
“You’ve got to remember: Less crime equals less claims equals lower premiums,” he said. “It’s the number of thefts, the amount of vandalism in some of the vacant homes, that’s really more of a factor.”
Contact View reporter James DeHaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839.